December is when we typically make resolutions for the upcoming year. One resolution that I hope most LBM sales managers will embrace as we move into 2006 is to become better leaders of their salespeople. As a general rule, developing sales talent seems to be one of the most difficult management tasks, probably because the process of selling is complicated by a variety of factors, including economic fluctuations, company performance, competition, and poor sales leadership. Leaders must help salespeople deal with these career challenges in a positive way in order to create powerful and lasting results for their organizations.
But what are the characteristics of great leaders? Managers and salespeople alike pause and ponder this question, searching for the “right” answer. I have heard a variety of responses, but most are stock expressions. Rather than taking the time to succinctly consider the real answer to this question, we are left with an unclear definition of leadership performance and a subject that remains vaguely defined. Thus, the revealing aspect of the question lies not in the answer, but in the difficulty in stating it.
Before reading on, take a moment and ask yourself: What are the performance characteristics of great leaders? It is important that you consider that this exercise asks you to define the characteristics of performance, not those of the performer. Therein lies the challenge. Great leadership is a performance, a series of actions—proactive measures as well as responses to challenges. If powerful leadership is to become a skill that is demonstrated with intention, then the performance characteristics that exemplify powerful leadership must be at the forefront of a manager's consciousness.
Harnessing the Power of Leadership Drawing from multiple resources in psychology and business leadership, I have concluded that the following characteristics represent the most powerful behavioral strategies of positive leadership performance: trust (attention and care for your subordinates), credibility (demonstration of ability), coaching (praise, feedback, and career guidance), and vision (clarity of purpose stated and persistently reiterated).
Follow this formula if you want to improve your leadership performance in 2006:
Characteristic #1: Trust. The common aphorism many businesspeople rely on is that “Business is not personal; it's business.” However, business is personal. People are human beings with emotions, problems, personalities, and a deep psychological need to feel wanted and useful. Listen carefully to your employees and develop trust and loyalty or else you may irreparably damage relationships. Failing to build trust and loyalty among your employees also may jeopardize your own reputation with your superiors. Great managers recognize that their leadership is not based on delegated authority from above but rather rests on a foundation of strength that stems from a base of trusting, loyal employees.
How to establish trust: Pay attention to the personal challenges of your employees and your business associates. Adapt your leadership style to the unique personalities and career objectives of various employees. Strive to respect their opinions as adults and as positive contributors to the organization. Most important, try to utilize the unique skills of each individual in your organization. Rather than try to fit a square peg in a round hole, put the right people in the situations that will create happiness and productivity.
Characteristic #2: Credibility. Credibility results from trust and knowledge. There are generally two types of sales managers: former salespeople who were promoted into a management position and general (branch) managers with limited sales experience, multiple responsibilities, and limited time to invest in sales management leadership. General managers must keep in mind that their credibility as sales leaders is not tacitly accepted and that their salespeople will have confidence in their manager only after the manager has demonstrated his or her sales ability. Even if that manager is talented enough to do the job of selling or has past sales experience, it will not matter unless a salesperson knows that the manager has the ability to walk a mile in the salesperson's shoes. Great leaders never ask anyone to do anything they are not prepared or able to do.
How to establish credibility: If you want to create credibility with your salespeople, whether you have never been a salesperson or are a seasoned veteran, spend time in the field with them and demonstrate your various sales skills. When appropriate, take the lead role in sales calls so that your salespeople can see how you perform in the heat of battle.
Once you prove to your employees that you have the ability to perform in the field and can sympathize with their challenges, you will then be prepared to elevate yourself to a coaching role. You don't have to be a better salesperson than the individuals you manage. Many professional athletes rely on the counsel of coaches who cannot perform as well as the athletes they advise. You merely need to be credible in order to establish your role as a coach.